The Weekly Machen
For the unfortunate observers of recent pop culture, the following book review will read as painfully familiar. During the majority of the last decade, franchises and proprieties have been routinely appropriated for political ends by “creatives” significantly less talented than the original creators. Ask any tortured Star Wars fan about their favorite obsession—a lightweight affair even at its height—and you may receive a litany of fair complaints on its current state. On the other end of the spectrum, we could consider the buffoonery afflicted upon the greatest romance of the twentieth century—Tolkien’s Middle-Earth—by a band of vandals bereft of ideas and even rudimentary skill.
However, despite this rash of revisionism, the deconstruction of our heroes and our stories is not only not new, it has, in the past, targeted greater things—the greatest things. George Moore’s The Book Kerith is an attempt to destruct “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and if we value Arthur Machen’s opinion, it is a sadly ineffective book in both conception and execution.
Machen was a believer, but rather than reacting emotionally or throwing ad hominem attacks, he used a scalpel to cut at Moore’s fallacies as a thinker and writer. The following article concludes our six-week survey of Machen as a book reviewer for the Evening News.
Famous Novelist’s Blunder:
Trying to Re-write a World’s Masterpiece
August 22, 1916
The artist who sets himself to rewrite masterpieces is, in a sense, a heroic figure. He is the desirer and the attempter of the impossible. At the best he can only hope to be a splendid failure; at the worst . . . let us be merciful, and avail ourselves of the figure called aposiopesis.
Suppose a man to hear an inward voice, speaking with authority, and telling him that Homer bungled the “Odyssey,” or that Cervantes threw away the finest idea in the world when he wrote “Don Quixote” or that Mr. Micawber is a miserable failure. Suppose such a man, an ingenious and often an admirable artist, were to listen to the deluding voice and to rewrite one or other of the great masterpieces in question; who would not weep if such a man there be, who would not weep if Mr. George Moore were he?
But I am afraid he is; and that “The Brook Kerith” ( Mr. Moore’s latest work) is certain proof of his identity with the unfortunate individual whom we have contemplated in hypothesis.
A Task for a Scholar
And the case is a complicated one. For the “Odyssey,” and “Don Quixote,” and “David Copperfield” are acknowledged fictions. The New Testament is not an acknowledged fiction. There is indeed an entertaining opinion, which I have encountered, to the effect that the story told in the Gospels has no kind of foundation of fact, but this view is not generally held, and I gather that Mr. George Moore is convinced that Jesus of Nazareth is an historical personage, who lived in Syria at the date usually accepted. Further, he would say that in some respects the story of Jesus’s life, as told by the Evangelists, is accurately told. But, he would proceed, this story is disfigured by the wildest errors and the most absurd misconceptions. I know what really happened in the case of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ, and so I proceed to rectify Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and, further, to explain the delusions of Paul.
Well; but such a task as this is work for a critical scholar, and the form it would take would be a critical examination of the New Testament in its historical and theological aspects.
For example, Mr. George Moore says that the officer in charge at the Crucifixion did not pierce the Lord’s side, though he lied to Pilate and said that he had done so, to oblige Joseph of Arimathea.
Now, in the critical work on the New Testament which Mr. George Moore should have written, he would have told us how he knew that the Centurion lied in this matter; he would have quoted the documents or alleged the reasons which have assured him as to the truth of the matter. But as it is, we have only Mr. George Moore’s word for it; and I see no reason for believing Mr. George Moore before the Apostle St. John, who, at all events, lived in the times of which he writes.
New Ideas of Jesus
So it comes to this, that “The Brook Kerith” is not only an attempt to retell the greatest story in the world in story-form; but it is also an attempt to mingle criticism, contradiction, and vilification of the original tale with the reconstruction of it. Imagine a man sitting down to re-write Mallory’s “Morte d’Arthur,” and proving by the way that King Arthur was a shabby blackguard, that Galahad was a suicidal maniac, that Lancelot was a funk and a sneak, and that there wasn’t any Holy Graal. The analogy is not perfect, since the Arthurian legend is admittedly fictitious, while the Gospels are admittedly historical; though, according to Mr. Moore, only historical in parts. Still, this analogy, imperfect as it is, gives one a fair notion of “The Brook Kerith.”
The story of Jesus of Nazareth, as retold by Mr. George Moore, is, briefly, this. Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary. He left his parents to become an Essene—the Essenes were a Quietist sect who lived a monastic life in the wilds by the Jordan. Jesus became the best shepherd the Essene community had ever known. He became famous amongst all the hill shepherds as the possessor of the great cure for scab. No one was such a fine judge of a good ram or a good sheepdog. And he was a pious and excellent young man.
Unfortunately he went to hear the preaching of John the Baptist. He became John’s disciple, and a deep student of the Book of Daniel. In consequence his brain was turned. He was changed into a moody, violent, and even a malignant fanatic.
A sort of malignant hate glowered in his eyes . . . he seemed to hate all he looked upon . . . his passion rising again into flood, he seemed like one bereft of reason, for he said that all men must drink of his blood if they would live for ever. He who licked up one drop would have everlasting life.
And one of the Apostles declares: “A lamb so long as you’re agreeing with him, but at a word of contradiction he’s all claws and teeth.”
This Jesus of “The Brook Kerith” sets himself with peculiar vehemence to denounce the Liberal Churchmen, the modernists of the day—the Sadducees, who profited by the sacrifices at which they jeered. The sensible Judas, convinced that the Master had become a raging maniac—he was about to proclaim himself God—says that he must be saved from himself, and betrays him, and he was crucified. But Joseph of Arimathea, bearing him to the prepared tomb, perceived that he still lived, having hidden him, nursed him back into life.
Failure as a Piece of Writing
Jesus returned to the Essenes, to his old craft of shepherding, to his skilful judging of rams and sheepdogs. He was profoundly penitent for the mischievous delusions of his earlier years, met Paul, did his best to persuade Paul that the god he worshipped was in reality before him as a poor shepherd, and finally, is supposed to nave wandered away with some Indian monks who were preaching Buddhism. For Jesus had come to the conclusion that, if there be a God, it is well to have nothing to do with Him; since God and desire are one, and from desire all ills proceed.
Such is the tale told by Mr. George Moore. It is a dismal story, since it is always unpleasant to be told that things we have deemed noble were, in truth, mean, malignant and miserable.
But it is not only dismal as a mere plot; it is, I think, utterly unsuccessful is a piece of literary craftsmanship. The confusion of the conception, hovering between the retelling of the Gospel narrative as a romance, and the criticising and rectifying of it as a piece of history, reflects itself in the execution. For many pages it is Joseph of Arimathea, not Jesus, who is the central figure: the author does not explain how the violent, malignant, maniacal Jesus that he depicts, yet wins the deepest love, all but the adoration of his followers, who are all the time aware that he is talking impossible nonsense.
And this vital confusion has affected and afflicted the diction of the book. The education of Joseph of Arimathea reads like “Sandford and Merton”; the healing of Jesus by Joseph and his servant is in the manner of Butcher and Lang’s translation of the “Odyssey”; now we have the strict “ye,” now the modern “you”; sometimes one is reminded of an old-fashioned Quaker—“that isn’t what I’m here to talk to thee about”—and St. Peter (who is Comic Relief) speaks in that dialect which actors name Loamshire.
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4 thoughts on “Famous Novelist’s Blunder”
Whew! I did not have much sense of the character and ‘content’ of Moore’s works (or personality). His Wikipedia article (insofar as that’s anything to go by) does nothing to render him more appealing. A quick check of C.S. Lewis’s correspondence finds him writing his brother on 10 May 1921 awaiting “Moore’s Abelard with interest: I have never read anything by him” (Heloïse and Abelard (1921) – more rewriting history, I wonder? ). Both brothers were at that date apostate. Less than two months later (1 July) find Lewis writing his brother agreeing with his “refusal to support George Moore in his blackmail” – apparently with reference to Moore’s attempt to manipulate his (and Lewis’s) publisher, Heinemann, by announcing plans to publish fine books privately, adding, “I have an unreasonable and purely A PRIORI belief that Geo. Moore is a bit of a quack.” Eleven years later, on 17 January 1932, after their returns to Christianity, Lewis writes his brother calling “Moore and Oscar Wilde” examples of “inferior practitioners” of “the Epicurean-aesthetic business” in comparison to Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, observing “aestheticism, honestly followed, refutes itself by leading him to something that will put aestheticism in its place”: “the early Church”‘. Having just embarked on Kathryn Wehr’s new annotated edition of Dorothy L. Sayers’ very different, lively modern retelling, The Man Born to Be King, I wondered if DLS had anything to say about Moore, but the only volume of her Letters I have (1937-43) has no index entry for him. (I wonder if Machen listened to the wireless, and heard her plays as they were broadcast?)
Thank you for the rundown on Moore. He is not someone I know much about and I doubt I’ll be exploring his bibliography. I do know that Machen had some correspondence with him. Years after this negative review, Moore put in a good word for Machen at “The Bookman.” There exists a short series of correspondence between AM and DLS, but I have not run across any mention of Machen’s opinion of her work, or radio in general. He disliked the movies.
Interesting to read of Machen’s later contacts with Moore – thanks! This review is in many ways mildly expressed (for example, “Blunder”: if Machen got to write his own headlines) but very clear, thorough, and firm, too. It s tantalizing that you have not encountered any mention or Machen’s opinion of radio in general, as it would be particularly interesting to know what he, as an old actor himself, thought of radio plays – or, for that matter, recordings of poetry and drama, whether by the poet or others (Tennyson and Browning are the earliest poets I know to have recorded some of their own works). I am not sure when recording of fiction began, but I have encountered interesting recordings of lectures from the 1930s, and maybe earlier.
I found it interesting that Machen critiqued Moore almost entirely on the literary merit, as if the author’s theological surmises were beneath comment. I’d like to know his opinion on radio. Personally, I am a fan of “old time radio,” but I suspect Machen would have a dismissive view of the dramatic form. He seemed rather committed to live, in-person performance. However, he did appear on radio: https://darklybrightpress.com/word-and-voice/. It is frustratingly short, but is an opportunity to hear him speak. As an aside, I do believe he would have disliked television. Of course, not every literary man of his generation rejected the medium – as in the case of Algernon Blackwood.